Teaching Each Instead of All

Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.

I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.

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Image via: someecards.com

How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.

And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner. Continue reading

Three Things I Believe

It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.

Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.

What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change. Continue reading

From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

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Breaking Mentor Texts into Loose Parts

“What’s a break it box?” Ethan asked, pulling the overflowing black bin from the bottom shelf of our mobile makerspace. These shelves on wheels serve as a catch-all for recyclables, loose parts, and whatever craft supplies we currently have on hand.

“It’s a box full of stuff you can rip apart and repurpose,” I told him. “People donate the things inside. I think there are some old wireless modems in there right now.”

“And you’re going to let us break them?” He asked me, incredulously.

“Sure,” I encouraged him. “Tear them apart. Loosen up the bits inside. Don’t think about what they are. Consider what they could be. Make something new.”

He laughed. “I can’t believe you’re going to let me rip this stuff apart.”

“How will you know what’s inside unless you break it open?”

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Reader Mail: How do you balance writing and reading instruction?

“Would you rather teach only writing or only reading?”

The question my husband asked me during a marathon session of Would You Rather (we were driving from Virginia to Maine).

“Writing. Hands down.”

From the time I was a little girl, I’ve kept diaries, written letters to friends near and far, submitted poems to contests. In high school my mom made spiral-bound books of my writing, distributing copies to grandparents. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in poetry writing. I went to used bookstores and church books sales on the weekends, filling my backpack with the words of writers I’d read over and over again so I could become more like them. Today I teach writing to high schoolers and have written a book about writing instruction for secondary teachers.

Most of my English teacher friends decided to become English teachers because of a love affair with reading. I followed my passion for writing all the way to the classroom.

Although my love for writing and teaching writing is steadfast, answering that question – would I like to teach only writing or only reading – brings with it some discomfort and guilt. Shouldn’t I want to teach both equally? Shouldn’t I BE teaching both equally?

It’s not that I don’t like to teach reading. For one thing, I know that “writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing” (Annie Proulx). I also know that reading in and of itself is important (and I looooove to read…it’s what lead me to writing).

When I trace my predilection for teaching writing back to its roots, here’s what I find:

I see my students 3-4 times a week for 46 minutes. There are not enough days in the year, hours in the day, minutes in the hour to explore the incredible worlds of writing and reading fully – to teach both writing and reading well. So I would choose writing. I have the motivation and the resources and the education to teach reading and writing well. But I don’t have the time. And time is everything.

Enter reader mail from Dan Harris in Peabody, Massachusetts who shares the same frustration as I do:

How do you handle reading (i.e. independent, whole-class novel, etc.) in your classroom? Do you do a reading workshop during your writing workshop? I’m finding myself loving the writing workshop that I believe I am neglecting a bit the reading aspect. My students are doing a lot of self-selected independent reading. How are you able to find a balance?

So what are we to do? We have to teach writing. We have to teach reading. We have a very limited amount of time.

This question has two answers:

  • When we teach writing, we are also teaching reading.

I want to circle back to the Annie Proulx quote: Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing.

Teachers who use mentor texts to guide and inspire student writers know this to be true.

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Students reading mentor texts out loud in partners

In a classroom that puts mentor texts at the center, students read all the time. In the immersion phase, students are introduced to professional, current, relevant pieces of writing in the genre in which they are about to write. They read these pieces like writers, noticing what they look and sound like, and how they are put together. During this phrase, writers may also glean ideas for their own writing.

As writers move from the immersion phase to planning and writing, they read the mentor texts again, this time with a more focused purpose. In this phrase, students read to learn how:

  • to add detail to their writing
  • to structure their writing
  • to put voice into their writing
  • to write powerful leads and endings.

Then, as students continue to write and revise and write and revise as they work towards publication, they return to the mentor texts yet again, reading to learn how to:

  • punctuate their writing
  • use presentation elements (headings, images, etc.) to strengthen their writing.

In every phase of the writing process, students are reading. Closely. Repeatedly. For different purposes. They are never not reading.

The second way to think about the writing-reading balance:

  • We don’t have to teach literature and writing simultaneously. We can teach one thing, and then the other.

When teachers ask about how we balance reading and writing instruction, they’re usually referring to a different kind of reading – not the reading our students do in service of their writing – but reading for reading’s sake. Reading as literature study. Teaching novels.

And for me, this is where the guilt sets in. Because while I know I’m doing a lot of reading instruction with my students in writing workshop, it’s this kind of reading instruction that sometimes gets sacrificed in my classroom because of time constraints.

Over the years, in an attempt to strike the perfect reading-writing instruction balance, I have tried many different approaches. Here are approaches I’ve tried and the pros and cons of each.

  • Teach one semester of writing and one semester of reading

In this approach, students write in multiple genres (and read copious pieces in those genres) in the fall. In the spring, students study novels/whole books, and possibly write about them, too.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue — instead of “What in the whole universe should I teach tomorrow?” the question is smaller for a whole semester: “What writing lesson should I teach tomorrow? What reading lesson should I teach tomorrow?”

–       You can devote all your time and energy to teaching one thing and one thing only each semester

–       Students find a rhythm quickly when the flow of the class is predictable and consistent (all writing all the time, or all reading all the time)

–       The other subject can be used to support/extend the primary subject (if you teach writing with mentor texts, students are getting reading instruction as well; students can write about their reading in the reading semester)

–       In a writing study, students aren’t reading literature (and vice versa)

–       In a reading study, students are producing full pieces of writing

–       In my experience, students have produced fewer published pieces of writing (5-6 instead of 7-8 when writing happens throughout the year)

–       If you start with a semester of reading, students wont’ have the writing skills to write smartly about what they’re reading

–       If you start with a semester of writing, a whole semester will pass before students are really digging into literature…

  • Devote a few days a week to each subject

In this approach, students write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; they study literature on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue!

–       Students know what to expect when they come to class – it’s a writing day or a reading day

–       Adds variety to the week – you’re not doing the same thing every day

–       You get to teach writing and reading evenly throughout the year

–       If a student is out sick two days in a row, he will not miss more than 1 day of instruction in either subject

–       If you don’t finish a writing lesson, you have to wait two days to complete it

–       If you’re teaching writing MWF, and Monday is a holiday, five days will pass before you can teach writing again

–       Switching back and forth between subjects can be exhausting

–       One subject gets more time and energy (whichever one you teach MWF)

–       Students don’t get consistent daily practice in genre writing or literature study

  • Alternate full writing and reading cycles

When you alternate writing cycles, you teach one writing study over 3-4 weeks, followed by a reading study of 2-3 weeks. Then you teach another writing study. Then you teach another reading study. And you move through the year in this way, alternating writing and reading cycles.

Pros

Cons

·      No more decision fatigue!

·      You can focus on one subject, and put all your energy into it, for 2-4 weeks at a time

·      Students quickly develop a writing or reading rhythm

·      You devote equal-ish time to both subjects by year’s end

·      During a writing cycle, students aren’t reading any literature (unless they are choosing to read outside of class, which some do)

·      During a reading cycle, students aren’t doing any longer pieces of writing

No matter the approach you choose, you’ll want to find small ways to tap into both subjects – and it’s not hard to do since the two are so closely linked:

In a reading day/semester/cycle:

In a writing day/semester/cycle:

·      Begin class with Notebook Time – daily opportunities for students to play with ideas

·      Invite students to work in their notebook for homework

·      Close the reading cycle by asking students to write about what they have read

·      Have students produce short reflective responses about their reading

 

·      Begin class with 10 minutes of independent reading (s

·      Keep homework simple: assign 10-15 minutes of reading each night

·      Focus on the skills of close reading during mentor text immersion

 

In a perfect world, students would take two year-long English classes: one literature course (in which they write about what they are reading) and one writing course (in which they read copiously in the genres in which they are writing). But until this dream situation becomes a reality, we need to be creative and flexible in our approach.

While none of the above scenarios is perfect, they all strive for balance in teaching the language arts, and they honor the ways in which reading and writing feed one another – and how they feed us.

~ Allison

Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

 

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading

Coaching the Overwhelmed Writer

I stumbled upon Austin Kleon’s work a few years ago while struggling to support writers through the process of creative theft. They were working on fan fiction, and many of them were having a hard time distinguishing stealing with integrity from…..well….simply stealing.

Over the years, I’ve come to view plagiarism as something of a developmental phase, so when I encounter it in my work with students, I try to work them through it and beyond it by providing specific strategies. This is how I fell in love with Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Here, he shares a list of ten things he wished he had learned when he was starting out:

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Happy New Year from Moving Writers!

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2015 was a momentous year for us at Moving Writers: we published a book with Heinemann, and collected over 52,000 views on our blog!

This is all thanks to you, dear readers, for your support, your questions, and your continued interest and enthusiasm in our work. As a thank you, we are reposting our top five posts of 2015!

#1 So I quit grading… | October 2015

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In this post, Rebekah shares the story of her brave experimentation with doing away with grades altogether in her upper-level IB English class. She shares what she does in lieu of a traditional grading system, some student feedback, and the results so far. She promises another post in 2016 once she has gone gradeless for a full school year!

#2 Thinking about Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis | April 2015

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This post explores the problem of needing to teach literary analysis in a world in which literary analysis doesn’t really exist (outside academia). The solution: authentic mentor texts! In this post, we share our approach to culling mentor texts for teaching literary analysis. We cover mini mentor texts and whole mentor texts pulled from sources like The New Yorker and A.V. Club that highlight the skills our students need to write literary analysis in smart pop culture reviews.

#3 Mentor Texts for the First Week of School | July 2015

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This summer we compiled posts that explored the use of mentor texts during the first few days of school. In this post you’ll find simple one-day activities for kicking off the year as well as a more in-depth project called The American Teenager Project that will move you into the first writing workshop study while teaching all of the procedures and habits your students will need for a successful year of writing.

#4 Writing Workshop Workflow: A System for Tracking Student Progress | October 2015

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Submission Form

In this post we share a way of tracking student progress and collecting work during a unit of study using both digital and paper media.  This post contains lots of goodies — a code for tracking student progress, conference summary sheets, writing study cover sheets, and more templates to make your life easier and your workshop smoother!

#5 A Different Way to Teach Literary Analysis: A Literature-Based Analysis Study | May 2015

In this post we share a literature-based analysis study built on the poems of Seamus Heaney. This project offers a rich and exciting way of incorporating analysis into your classroom: analysis of a text, analysis of a writer’s choices, analysis of one’s own writing. The best part? No boring literary analysis essays in sight!

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Two years ago, when Rebekah and I decided to form our own two-person PLC, we had no idea it would lead us HERE. But every day we shared resources, brainstormed together, and wrote about our work.

If we could give you, our readers, anything it would be the gift of a PLC. Kick off 2016 by forming your own microPLC. Share this post with a colleague or two and commit to trying new idea in January. Then write about it!

As always, please let us know if there are topics or questions you would like us to explore at Moving Writers in the new year — leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett). We have been working on some exciting changes and additions to the blog for 2016 and are anxious to share them with you. Stay tuned for some amazing guest posts, a blog series, and more!

Love,

Allison & Rebekah

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMLike what you’ve read here? Check out our new book, just published by Heinemann, Writing With Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentors Texts. (Available here and here and here — wherever your holiday gift card takes you.)

Writing Our Way Into Critical Thinking

Way back one month ago, I made some resolutions for my classes. Among them was a switch-up that would turn the Quick Write into a broader Notebook Time — giving my students lots of varied opportunities to play with words in different ways.

In short, switching things up has been invigorating for my students. I no longer hear a low groan reverberate throughout the classroom when “Quick Write”  appears on the board. In itself, that feels like victory.

By far, their favorite way to spend Notebook Time — and the way that has proven most profitable — is playing with raw data.

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Responding to the Writer, Not the Writing

Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.

In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.

Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.

Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.

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